As a mom with three little boys, I find myself in complete and utter survival mode. This means that my house is dirtier than I care to admit and I lean on packaged foods when those evening hours are just too chaotic to cook from scratch. When it comes to buying fruits and veggies, it's easy: squeeze, sniff, or even taste test (those grapes before committing to the whole bag!)
Choosing healthy and nutritious packaged food isn't quite so easy. Manufacturers can trick you with their fancy and expertly placed advertising lingo. And, before I go any further … yes, fresh and minimally processed food is ideal. However, sometimes a packaged convenient food can mean the difference between getting food on the table for a family meal versus running through the drive-through.
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So I thought that this month, I could not only share my criteria on how I judge a packaged food but then also share a few of my favorite packaged foods that are typically in our pantry or fridge.
First, when checking out a product, I skip right over the title and any of the advertisement on the front. Manufacturers can be very sneaky with how they title their food -- ad execs are paid good money for that job! I go straight to the source: the ingredient list. Yep, that's right. I skip right past the calories, fat and even the grams of sugar.
What to look for
If I know what ingredients were put into the food, and I choose wisely, the calories/fat/sugar will fall right into place.
• Sugar placement -- Ideally, I try to find products that don't have added sugar/brown sugar or syrups of any sort (high fructose, corn, or brown rice). However, when this just isn't possible, I try to find a product that doesn't have sugar in the first 3-5 ingredients. Ingredients are listed in based on proportion in the product. The higher in the list that sugar falls, the greater the amount added to the food.
• Type of flour -- I choose whole grain products as much as possible. When looking for a whole grain, you should see the word "whole" in front of the flour used, and you should not see the word "enriched."
• Food dyes -- I try to not provide food dyes to my kids. Food dyes do not add any nutritional value, and if there are natural non-dye ways to color food products, why not choose the ones without the dyes.
• Hydrogenation -- Hydrogenation is the process of adding hydrogen to a fat to fully saturate it. This ultimately makes the product more shelf-stable. Research has shown a link between hydrogenation and heart disease. I avoid products with hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils.
Well, there you have it -- my top four criteria used in assessing a product for my kids. Are there more aspects of the food that you could possibly look at? Yes, of course.
Healthy snack suggestions
By using these four criteria, you'll find a pretty good product that you can feel comfortable giving your kids when time, energy, or your sanity is on the line. And, drum roll please … a few of our staples:
• Triscuits -- This is our go-to cracker for just about everything and I love it. I give it to my oldest in his lunch box for a mom-made lunchable and it's used at snack time with slices of cheese or dipped with hummus. Why is it so great compared to others? First, it has only three ingredients. No artificial or unnecessary added anything. Second, it's a true whole grain source using whole grain soft white wheat.
• Back to Nature 100 percent Whole Wheat Macaroni & White Cheddar -- First off, this product is superior for its lack of yellow dye use. Second, unlike a lot of its competitors, it uses real whole wheat macaroni. A lot of the other brands describe themselves as whole wheat but, when you check the ingredients, they're using "enriched whole wheat," which is the same as white flour.
• Chobani Champion Yogurt Tubes -- These are a new staple in the house brought on by school lunch. My oldest came home begging for fruit snacks, GoGurts, and Lunchables. Oh boy. We eat lots of yogurt at our house and I've always loved the Chobani champion. As compared to other brands, it has limited added sugar being sweetened with cane juice. Second, it uses vegetable juice for a natural coloring.
• Lara Bars -- compared to other granola bars, these definitely get pricey. However, unlike the majority of other bars, these are only made with natural ingredients without any added sugars. For example, the banana bread flavor is made with almonds, cinnamon, and unsweetened bananas.
I hope that gives you a few ideas on how to assess the food you're already buying and how to choose healthier replacements.
Contact me: If you have any feedback, comments or questions on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you! You can send me an email at Christina@nourishedliving.com with your thoughts.
•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, nourishedliving.com. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Northwest suburbs.